Don’t we love our Mary Sues? Well, we’re supposed to. But we do not! In fact, more often than not, we can’t stand them. Ever since the invention of the Internet, when TV fans found a platform to vociferously vent their frustrations to the world, the term “Mary Sue” has become well-known. A “Mary Sue” is a derogatory term applied to a certain type of clichéd character. It’s a character we’re supposed to love as much as the people who write the show do. Sadly, their love for Mary Sue has blinded them to the fact that we all just want to spit on Mary Sue. Felicity Smoak, who dominated the lattest season of Arrow with her Mary Sue awesomeness is just the latest in a long line of this fingernails-on-the-blackboard caricature.
What is a Mary Sue, you might ask? Useful question, if you want to understand this article. Well, first of all, a ‘Mary Sue’ does not necessarily apply to a female character. Mary Sue can be a male as well, cleverly called a ‘Gary Stu’, in that case. The name ‘Mary Sue’ originally comes from an incredibly obscure 1973 parody short-story by Paula Smith. (No one else has heard of her. It’s not just you.) This Star Trek tale was creatively called “A Trekkie’s Tale”, published in the Sci-Fi Fanzine ‘Menagerie’. This humble little story gained new life when the internet came along. “A Trekkie’s Tale” is about the adventures of Lieutenant Mary Sue, “The youngest, smartest cadet ever to graduate from Star Fleet Academy, at the tender age of 15”. Lt. Mary Sue was an all-too-perfect character, skilled in everything and sought after romantically by Kirk, Spock and McCoy. She saves the day in the end, of course. When the internet made this little-known story popular, fans latched onto it as a nickname for an annoying type of clichéd character—like Felicity—often seen on TV, especially in sci-fi shows.
A ‘Mary Sue’ character will either have an unrealistic, compendious skill set that outshines everyone else, or otherwise, she/he will simply be praised by the other characters for a small contribution. All her/his ideas are praised as brilliant, all her/his jokes are laughed at, (even if they aren’t funny, which they usually aren’t) and any insight she/he offers will be seen as amazing deductions, no matter if they are glaringly obvious or moronically simplistic.
A Mary Sue is able to persuade anyone to see her/his way of thinking, regardless of how weak her/his argument is. People will trust her/him right away and people who just met her/him will immediately be taken with ‘Mary Sue’ and start talking about how amazing she/he is. Other characters will spend much of the episode talking about how special the Mary Sue is, even if she/he hasn’t done anything to give that impression.
A Mary Sue is pure goodness. She/he doesn’t actually have to do anything to prove it…Mary Sue is just good! Mary Sue is better than the rest of us; not by anything she/he does…She/he is just better because she is! Anyone who doesn’t like the Mary Sue is either portrayed as an unsympathetic character, or will change their opinion by the end of the story and admit that the Mary Sue is indeed wonderful. Mary Sue will often redeem the villain through the power of her/his goodness.
A Mary Sue will generally have no flaws. However, if she/he does, those flaws are either overlooked by everyone or considered endearing. She/he is never blamed for any problems she/he causes, and is always easily forgiven for doing things that other characters would be lambasted or punished for.
Mary Sue is always in the spotlight, sometimes even more-so than the hero. Even though the Mary Sue is usually a supporting character, she/he will either save the day at the end of the episode, or otherwise be the object that everyone is fighting over. A hero will often see the Mary Sue as the inspiration that keeps him fighting, even if the audience can’t see the appeal. (Well, except for the appeal of the invariably good looks of the female Mary Sues, who are always very attractive.)
A Mary Sue will usually have a tormented background to make her/him more appealing and sympathetic to the audience (Since we can’t sympathize with this perfect character otherwise.) Usually they will have had a bad childhood, or have overcome something like poverty or the death of a loved one.
A Mary Sue will often have some special destiny. At first they are just a downtrodden regular (albeit perfect) person, but later will be revealed to have an important place in the universal scheme of things.
The point of a Mary Sue is not in what she/he does but in how others react to her/him. A Mary Sue exists to be praised; an object to be idolized by others. She/he inspires others with contagious goodness, and makes the hero fight harder, even if the Mary Sue never actually does anything of note.
A Mary Sue is generally a wish-fulfillment character. The writer/showrunner often sees her/himself in this character and puts herself/himself by proxy in the story through this character, which is why the Mary Sue character usually gets the biggest happy ending of all the characters in the show.
Examples of Mary Sues:
Probably the most famous example of a Mary Sue is Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: the Next Generation. Wesley has most of the characteristics of a Mary Sue. He has wildly unrealistic skills, being a super-genius in science and engineering at 15. He is constantly praised by all the other characters for being so special and wonderful. He frequently saves the ship, although he is only 15, and he keeps coming up with solutions that the senior crew members have overlooked. He sees good in characters that others don’t see and is invariably proven right at the end. Even when his experiments almost destroy the ship (As in the episode “Evolution” when his nanites almost doom everyone, or the episode “Remember Me” where he almost gets his mother killed) no blame is ever assigned him. His few errors are overlooked. He has a tragic background (he lost his father when he was a young boy) and he is later revealed to be a special “spirit traveler” who can cross dimensions at will and leaves the ‘Trek’ universe behind to explore the multi-verse.
Another example is Lana Lang from Smallville: Lana also has most of the Mary Sue qualities. She is the object of affection for the hero (Clark Kent) and villain (Lex Luthor), as well as the local football star. Many of the baddies who show up become obsessed with her. She is beautiful, smart, an ‘A’ student, a cheerleader and runs her cafe ‘the Talon’ in her spare time. She has no flaws. Everyone loves her and praises her. She has a tormented background (she lost her parents when she was young). No matter what she does wrong, at the end, Clark Kent will end up overlooking it or, often, apologizing to her. Ultimately, she becomes super hero herself with powers the same as Superman and we’re told by people from the future that she has a destiny as great as Superman himself.
Rose Tyler from Dr. Who is another example. Rose has no discernible skills but her pure goodness either reforms the villains, inspires the heroes or teaches a much-needed lesson to the guest star. All the male characters fall in love with her at some point and compete for her attention, even the 900 year old alien hero who never even looked at a woman before he met the irresistible Rose. Any female character who criticizes her is seen as jealous of Rose’s perfection and beauty. Even when she screws up (Such as when she almost destroyed the universe in “Father’s Day”) she is immediately forgiven. The hero constantly declares her as the thing that keeps him fighting (Forgetting that he was fighting evil for 800 years before he ever met her). Even after Rose finally left the series, the Doctor spent the next year telling replacement companion Martha how totally and utterly wonderful Rose was, which finally drive Martha out of the TARDIS. In the end, Rose became wealthy, got her late father back, received her own cloned Doctor boy-toy as a boyfriend, and became a dimension-hopping government agent.
Another recent example of a Mary Sue to (dis)grace our TV screens is Skye from Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. Skye is remarkably talented in a great many areas of technology, most of which she has no formal training in, but excels because “it just comes natural” to her. All the other characters spent the first year of the show overflowing with gooey admiration for her many virtues, such as her beauty, brains and courage. Even when she developed uncontrolled super powers in year two, any characters who were wary of her new abilities were depicted as bull-headed, unlikeable jerks. The cold-hearted Agent Ward (later revealed to be a traitorous mole) fell completely in love with her, and the very private Coulson sees her as a surrogate daughter. Her screw-ups or deliberately bad behavior is always quickly overlooked and forgiven. For example, Coulson is warned that it’s unwise to bring Skye into the SHIELD team because of her past with Rising Tide, but he succumbs to her wonderfulness and lets her in. When she betrays the team, she is immediately given a second chance. She goes against Coulson’s orders again but he overlooks it once more. When she sides with the Inhumans against SHIELD, she is once again forgiven and welcomes back. Skye has a tragic background, regarding her “monster” father, a deceitful mother and a massacre in the Hunan province of China, after which she went to a foster home. She is an “0-8-4” which is an object of unknown origin and power—later revealed to be one of the Inhumans. Skye has now become the most powerful character on the show with her ‘quake’ abilities, and we’re told that her destiny is to lead the Inhumans.
And finally, we come to Felicity Smoak from Arrow. Like a good Mary Sue, she has tragedy in her background (her father abandon her and her mother when she was very young) and has had a shaky relationship with her mother. Despite this, she went on to become an honors graduate of MIT. Her skill set seems to be unlimited. She started out as an IT specialist and computer genius, but her Mary-Sueness has expanded her compendious knowledge to being an expert engineer, such as disabling both bombs and dismantling the Markov device. She has also collected intimate knowledge in many other subjects, such as history, politics, economics, geography, physics, engineering, biology, and chemistry. Beyond that, she is also a skilled card counter, (using her knowledge of mathematics and probability theory) as in “the Underling” where she won so many card games, she was reprimanded by the casino owner, who was under the impression that she was cheating. (But Mary Sue’s do not cheat!) Heroes keep falling for her. Felicity has been the object of affection for Green Arrow, the Flash and the Atom. Felicity was able to shout angrily at the villain of the show with no repercussions. No one holds her sins or improper acts against her. In “the secret origin of Felicity Smoak”, we learn that Felicity developed a super virus which was suupossedly meant for “noble” actions, like exposing government fraud. At one point, her boyfriend Cooper tried to use the program to hack into the campus’ infrastructure to delete all the student loans. Cooper was arrested, covered up Felicity’s part in the whole mess and apparently hung himself in his cell. However, he would return years later as the cyber-terrorist Brother Eye, using Felicity’s virus to cause chaos in Starling City. Yet, despite this, our heroes on Team Arrow never chide Felicity for her part in the fiasco. She is also able to master Ray’s Atom armor in a single attempt. (How does it even fit her?) Felicity becomes Atom/Ray Palmer’s vice president at Palmer Technologies after he bought Queen Consolidated. By the end for of the season, she was running the whole company, after he signed control over to her (without her even asking.) Since the show is still going on, we don’t know what other grand gifts and ultimate destiny our Mary Sue of Star City will have when season 4 comes along.